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Jobless? It’s not all bad

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Lost your job? As it turns out, getting laid off could improve your health, boost your self-esteem and help in your search for authenticity, says Suzanne C. De Janasz, professor of leadership and organisation development, IMD.

The past decade has brought with it unprecedented change – not all of it good. Unemployment levels have not reached those seen during the Great Depression, but layoffs have been a significant feature of the business landscape for the past three years.

Given the sometimes harsh reality facing many in today’s volatile economy, we can look at the impact that being made redundant has on individuals.

Does it irrevocably damage their self esteem? What does it mean for their future careers? And can being laid off actually improve individuals’ overall health and well-being?

This last point may sound counterintuitive, but don’t underestimate the power of change. It’s easy to think of losing a job as overwhelmingly negative, but research indicates the disruptive effect – the “jolt” – of job loss can also be a catalyst for positive change. It has the potential to shake people out of inertia, forcing them to discard the old and focus attention on the new.

This jolt can open doors to new opportunities. We asked professionals who had recently lost their jobs how it had affected them and how they were approaching the search for new employment.

Four key themes emerged: three of them tied to a desire for increased authenticity. Said another way, these individuals expressed new interest in knowing and living by their values.

Lifestyle quality: One respondent noted simply “flexibility and quality of life are more important than salary and title”, showing employment came out as a means to maintaining a lifestyle, not as a goal in itself. The desire to spend more time with family and friends and hopes for new and less demanding roles reinforced this. Salary mattered to a majority of respondents, but only in so far as it was necessary to support other lifestyle goals.

Meaningful work: People overwhelmingly wanted jobs that offered them meaning and were aligned to personal values. A common reason for this was the need to contribute to society.

“I am concerned with, and have as a priority, finding work that doesn’t scar my soul,” someone said. Career advancement and matching skills and abilities were equally emphasised.

Job security and happiness: Security and stability were given as important criteria for the next job, even if it meant accepting a lower salary or position. “Happiness and a good and positive work environment have become a huge priority. I will not attempt to survive a toxic work environment again,” a respondent said.

Self-doubt and cynicism: This final theme is darker. For some respondents, being laid off sparked two types of negative reaction: self-doubt and general cynicism about their future.

Self-doubt, an obvious precursor to reduced confi dence, can affect not only how people see themselves, but how others see them, thus making finding another job more difficult. This theme is exemplified in the respondent who noted: “It’s diffi cult to apply for jobs when I’ve never had any trouble getting work before. It makes me feel inferior, like someone else who has a nice secure job is deciding whether or not I’m worth interviewing  and effectively deciding my immediate working future. I want to scream ‘I can do this! Just give me a chance’.”

Cynicism links to viewing a layoff as unjust, resulting in a negative feeling about any future jobs or workplace environments. Respondents questioned business leaders who talked about values, but rarely practised or demonstrated them.

What does this mean for organisations?

Despite feelings of self-doubt and cynicism, the larger part of the feedback showed being laid off is positively associated with individuals’ search for authenticity, and this has implications for how organisations can handle layoffs differently.

First, companies that must cut operating costs should consider being more strategic. For example, they could offer increased unpaid vacation time or sabbaticals to offset potential slow demand. This makes sense given time with family and friends, and non-work pursuits, can be valued more highly than money.

When layoffs are necessary, organisations could offer affected employees workshops to help them identify and prioritise their values, rather than simply update their résumés.

This could help employees replace the burden of living to work with a more meaningful sense of working to live.

Finally, people who are on the job market need training in ways to remove self-doubt and develop self-confidence. Companies could partner with local community organisations or consultants that run self-help or self-improvement programmes.

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